During Saturday’s loss to the Nuggets, Timberwolves forward Luol Deng found himself playing with Karl-Anthony Towns more in the second half than he had in the first half.
Deng noticed the Nuggets were coming at Towns with multiple defenders when Towns touched the ball, and they were sometimes helping off Deng.
“I kept trying to get to the corner, because I knew they were helping from the bottom guy,” Deng said. “I just told KAT, the corner threes are open.”
Deng hit two of four three-pointers in the second half, although his last attempt on the Wolves’ final shot of the game missed. To Deng, his playing time varying from one half to another with Towns was emblematic of something interim coach Ryan Saunders has done since taking over for interim coach Tom Thibodeau: He’s not afraid to shake up lineups and rotations.
Thibodeau was more rigid. Players played their allotted minutes at certain times of the game, and Thibodeau rarely wavered from having more than nine players log minutes.
But Saunders has shown a willingness to mix his personnel. For instance, in two recent games against Memphis, he trotted out a lineup that included a point guard plus four big men off the bench in Deng, Anthony Tolliver, Dario Saric and Gorgui Dieng.
Saunders also has played Saric and Taj Gibson together at times, something Thibodeau did only for a couple of minutes this season. Under Saunders, they have played 32.5 minutes together.
Saunders said sometimes lineups are planned ahead of time and sometimes they are done based on who’s playing well and how matchups are trending within a game. Some of it also has to do with how banged up the Wolves are, specifically with three point guards on the mend. Saunders is searching for any combinations that might produce winning results.
“It’s one of those things, too, when you’re down on numbers like we are and down at a specific position, it’s all hands on deck,” Saunders said. “We’re doing whatever we can to try and scratch one out.”
Towns said Saunders’ penchant for shaking things up is a good thing that rubs off on the rest of the Wolves.
“I think for Ryan to be doing this just shows the type of courage you need to have to make the big decisions when the game is on the line and the game is up in the air,” Towns said. “Ryan goes out there with supreme confidence in himself, and the confidence goes into us as players. So it’s about always being ready.”
You might expect chemistry issues under such circumstances while players adjust to each other’s games. Deng said a bigger issue is figuring out how defenses try to stop each group.
“It’s just really recognizing each other, what the defense is doing and communicating with each other,” Deng said. “It’s not so much what each individual in our team does.”
And the Wolves are used to it, because Saunders mixes up lineups in practice, too.
“It’s about making sure we know the plays,” Towns said. “Sometimes you’re going to be asked to know some different positions as well. It’s just something that I don’t know if we plan for, but it’s something that just happens.”
And it happens a lot under Saunders.
• A lot of internet ink has been spilled discussing a potential Anthony Davis trade to the Lakers, but some of the major trades in the NBA have come with little warning that negotiations were happening. The Jimmy Butler saga seemed to stretch out, but a trade came together quickly and quietly once the Wolves were ready to deal. Then the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks in a move that stunned the NBA world. And early Wednesday, the Clippers traded Tobias Harris in a blockbuster with the 76ers. Sometimes trades are easier to execute when there is no leaking of information.
• More tough injury news for Wizards guard John Wall, who was already out for the season because of an injured heel. After a fall in his home, Wall ruptured his Achilles’ tendon, putting his availability for next season in doubt. It’s rough timing for the Wizards as Wall is set to begin playing on a new contract next season that could pay him up to $170 million over four years.
Chris Hine covers the Timberwolves for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @ChristopherHine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org